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updated: 6/5/2014 5:28 AM

Arlington Heights teen tech reviewer finds huge audience online

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  • Video: Standout Keaton Keller

  • Keaton Keller is the founder of TechSmartt, a YouTube-based popular consumer electronics review company that, unlike many online businesses, has proved profitable. The 17-year-old from Arlington Heights has been so successful he's had to hire a pair of employees.

       Keaton Keller is the founder of TechSmartt, a YouTube-based popular consumer electronics review company that, unlike many online businesses, has proved profitable. The 17-year-old from Arlington Heights has been so successful he's had to hire a pair of employees.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Keaton Keller, 17, says his business, TechSmartt, has never been a chore. The company provides reviews on YouTube of dozens of consumer electronics, from phones and tablets to cameras.

       Keaton Keller, 17, says his business, TechSmartt, has never been a chore. The company provides reviews on YouTube of dozens of consumer electronics, from phones and tablets to cameras.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Keaton Keller, 17, is the founder of TechSmartt. The YouTube channel's most-viewed video about the hidden features of Apple's iOS7 mobile operating system has almost 3.6 million views.

       Keaton Keller, 17, is the founder of TechSmartt. The YouTube channel's most-viewed video about the hidden features of Apple's iOS7 mobile operating system has almost 3.6 million views.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Keaton Keller, 17, is the owner of the consumer electronics company TechSmartt. The company started on YouTube in December 2010 and now has more than 166,500 subscribers. Keaton reviewed his first phone, his own iPhone 3GS, in January 2011.

       Keaton Keller, 17, is the owner of the consumer electronics company TechSmartt. The company started on YouTube in December 2010 and now has more than 166,500 subscribers. Keaton reviewed his first phone, his own iPhone 3GS, in January 2011.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Keaton Keller, 17, has traveled across the country for YouTube and tech conferences, initially with his parents -- mostly his mother -- and lately on his own. His company, TechSmartt, provides online reviews of a host of consumer electronics

       Keaton Keller, 17, has traveled across the country for YouTube and tech conferences, initially with his parents -- mostly his mother -- and lately on his own. His company, TechSmartt, provides online reviews of a host of consumer electronics
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

It's not unusual for high schoolers to get out of class and head to their jobs, but Keaton Keller of Arlington Heights is in a league all of his own.

The 17-year-old owns a successful -- and profitable -- consumer electronics review company that employs two people and produces YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views.

TechSmartt's videos have been featured on websites such as AOL and Mashable. The YouTube channel's most-viewed video, produced in June 2013 about the hidden features of Apple's iOS7 mobile operating system, has almost 3.6 million views.

"There are so many YouTube channels, it's really hard to gain brand representation," said Keaton, who in the fall will be a senior at Prospect High School, where he also plays tennis and competes on the debate team.

"But I think as people saw the youth perspective we bring to the table, they started coming to us more and more."

He hired his first full-time employee, New Jersey college student Phil Esposito, about three months ago. He's had a part-time employee, a high school senior in Rochester, N.Y., since 2012.

Keaton is so successful because of the unusual combination of his age and skill level, Esposito said.

"He's young, but he's also able to be very professional and very precise," he said. "Other kids his age, they skip over a lot of pretty crucial information that they didn't really think to include. He's giving a very high-quality video for his age."

It's all about staying on top of things, Keaton said.

"The biggest thing I've learned is to stay organized," he said. "From working with Philip and Matthew to successfully producing content each week, it can get out of hand quickly if we do not plan."

Unlike in most high-profile YouTube channels, all three TechSmartt guys do video reviews. That's a deliberate choice, should Keaton one day want to sell his channel.

"I want to make sure that if anything goes on in the future, there are different personalities under the brand," he said. "I feel it's important, because you can't sell someone's name."

Keaton's studio in the basement of his parents' home is outfitted with a video camera and studio lights, plus an iMac computer with a 27-inch monitor and a smaller monitor where he runs his Twitter feed, which numbers 14,000 followers.

Keaton has been making videos since 2007, when he focused on the RuneScape computer game.

"I saw a community on there and I got immersed in YouTube. But the viewership was not there, so I wanted to try tech (reviews) because that's something I always loved."

His first review -- produced in HD, uncommon back then -- was about his own iPhone 3Gs case.

"I typically want to talk about things I'm a fan of because I find it easier to relate to. One thing about YouTube is people want to hear you excited."

TechSmartt officially joined YouTube in December 2010 and now has more than 166,500 subscribers. Keaton reviewed his first phone, his own iPhone 3GS, in January 2011.

The channel now has 472 videos -- including comparisons and tips and tricks -- featuring about 25 phones plus tablets, keyboards, cameras and more.

Keaton says it takes two to three days to fully figure out a phone, and up to five days for the entire review period, including publishing a video. Videos average seven to eight minutes, but some are up to 40 minutes long.

Keaton buys unlocked phones from cellphone carriers or eBay, paying up to $1,100 each. Keaton said he's always used his own money to buy the phones he reviews, saving up from his job at UPS for the past two summers.

Sometimes, cellphone companies don't react too well to reviews being published when phones are leaked early, but that's just part of the game, he says.

"It's all about getting the device as quick as possible and beginning the review process. YouTube search engines are established very quickly as soon as the topic gets hot."

Over the years he's made connections at high-profile companies like CBS and Huffington Post, and numerous public relations agencies, he said.

Keaton declined to say how much money his company makes -- his income mainly comes from ads on his site -- although he said he started seeing a return about a year ago and began to make a steady profit four months ago. Viewership has jumped about 200 percent in the last month, he said.

The trick to reviews in the hypercompetitive YouTube world is to be knowledgeable yet friendly, Keaton said.

"In my first videos I was trying too hard. That was the biggest thing to for me. I always wanted to be perfect and not mess up anything," he said. "I realized about six months ago that when people watch my videos they want someone who knows what they're talking about, but they also want a friend, someone they can relate to, not a businessman."

Keaton's father said his son has always been focused.

"Keaton does whatever he needs to do, talks to whoever he needs to talk to, to accomplish his goals," Matt Keller said. "He's been very self-motivated, probably since the fourth grade."

Keaton has traveled across the country for YouTube and tech conferences, initially with his parents -- mostly his mother -- and lately on his own. Now that he travels solo, he pays for his own airfare.

Kay Keller said her son proved over time that he could be trusted. Also, he is surrounded by the tech community's social network wherever he goes.

"It is amazing to me the friends that Keaton has made all over the country," she said. "There is lots of that collaboration spirit in the YouTube universe. I think they really encourage that."

Keaton said sometimes his work conflicts with school -- and school always wins. This week, that meant he missed out on covering Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference.

"I gotta study for finals, which I don't want to -- but it comes first," he said.

Keaton is the perfect example of a very good student who's been able to identify his passion and pursue it, said Prospect High School Associate Principal Greg Minter.

"When I saw what he was doing, I really thought it was worthy of attention," he said. "As the administrative team talks about the evolving nature of education and learning, Keaton is going to be somebody we'll probably cite for his ability to learn about something and grow with it and prosper with it."

Although he briefly considered skipping higher education, Keaton now plans to study business in college.

"The thought has crossed my mind about not attending college, but the social collaboration and education is incomparable to just my current diploma," he said.

One day he might day start other businesses, but he's keeping those details to himself.

"YouTube and TechSmartt has never been a chore," he said. "It's a blast being able to inspire others to follow their dreams and talk about an ever-growing market of consumer electronics."

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